Khat Happens

In the past year, Hennepin County District Court Judge Kevin Burke has heard a handful of cases concerning khat. "I'd say it's more like alcohol," he hazards. "I'm a little hesitant to say, 'Don't worry about khat.'

But in the United States, in the era of rigid drug prohibition, the legalization of khat stands little chance, whatever its place in the culture of African immigrants. "The active ingredients are serious drugs. They're not caffeine," says Jim Spencer, an attorney with the criminal division of the state attorney general's office. "Generally, the social use of drugs is not an excuse. My own perception is that khat is a growing problem."

If the DEA needed any ammunition as to the seriousness of khat, it could have cited stories from western reporters covering the Somali civil war. News reports from the region detailed drug-crazed "war lords" sporting fistfuls of grenades and mouths full of khat. Even the usually staid Journal of the American Medical Association strayed into hyperbolic territory when it featured the drug in a 1993 article. "It is difficult to determine just how much the aggression-inducing nature of khat has contributed," JAMA reported, "to what is already a cauldron of anarchy and violence in Somalia. Reports in the media have associated khat chewing with reckless driving, senseless arguments, and the exchange of gunfire."

Sahardeed, however, calls these reports "just nonsense. I have been with Somali all my life, and I've never seen a Somali guy who gets crazy or anything like that while chewing khat. I've never seen anything like it."

Ugas hopes to launch a program called the Somali Community Service Center that would not only alert Somalis to the risks of using khat, but would help them with the wider range of issues they face as recent immigrants to the United States. To Ugas, the two are inseparable. "It's about the conflict of cultures. They're refugees from the civil war, really. Some of them saw their own parents killed in front of them. Right now there are no psychologists or social workers who can see what's going on with them."

Since the first young Somali arrestee came to him for help with his drug charge, Sahardeed has sought clarification of the drug laws from the attorney general and local police departments, but even a seasoned immigrant like Sahardeed seems confused about khat's status. "We can't find any law or any articles, we don't really have anything that says it's illegal."

Like Ugas, Sahardeed says his main concern is alerting Somali immigrants to the dangers they face--arrest, and under the new immigration laws, possible deportation--if they are found with khat. "What we want is to educate the people." But the fact that khat is often a mild drug and its universal cultural acceptance back home--Ugas offers that 80 percent of his countrymen use khat--make the job more difficult. But deportation and jail time are all too real deterrents. "If anybody wants to abide by the laws of this country," says Sahardeed, "we, the Somalis, want to do that."

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